Meteor showers, eclipses, and rainbows touch us in the deepest, nearly forgotten, vaults of our evolving natures. There is a profound instinct for mythology and symbolism, surviving in all of us, that is alerted when these phenomena occur. We stop in our tracks, as we did Sunday evening, and as ancient humans certainly did, in the presence of such spectacles.
It’s not a matter of explaining them, although a news article in this morning’s newspaper does that. But, honestly, the physics and the meteorology of the rainbow are mundane. The feeling inspired by the experience is not. It is transcendent, sparking an unacknowledged kinship with our evolutionary ancestors and an understanding of the event in symbolic terms whose origins pre-exist recorded history. Even the most prosaic among us is susceptible.
In Greek mythology, Iris is the daughter of Elektra. She is handmaiden to Hera, wife of Zeus, the god of gods, and she is the goddess of rainbows. She was considered a messenger of the gods, and the rainbow was her tweet, just one of several ways humans got the message. Science in the time of Athenian preeminence was not what it is today, of course, but despite our superior understanding of how rainbows occur, Iris’s message is as obscure today, and as mystifying, as it was to the ancient Greeks. More important, it is as traffic-stopping as it was in Athens more than 500 years before Christ. We marvel, as they did.
Rainbows, sea-girt islanders, and Iris have a relationship that extends thousands of years into our unremembered past.
“Iris was a goddess of sea and sky — her father Thaumas ‘the wondrous’ was a marine-god, and her mother Elektra ‘the amber’ a cloud-nymph,’” according to the theoi.com, an encyclopedia of ancient Greek theology. “For the coastal-dwelling Greeks, the rainbow’s arc was most often seen spanning the distance between cloud and sea, and so the goddess was believed to replenish the rain-clouds with water from the sea. Iris had no distinctive mythology of her own. In myth, she appears only as an errand-running messenger and was usually described as a virgin goddess.”
When Iris delivered the message from the gods Sunday evening, Islanders — be-sandaled and draped in flowing beach cover-ups, on their way to snatch a pizza for dinner, or making just one more cast before heading for the ferry — stopped short and took notice. After all, Iris was worth looking at, a “beautiful young woman with golden wings, a herald’s rod…and sometimes a water-pitcher…in her hand…standing beside Zeus or Hera.” Who wouldn’t call time out, take a knee, and get on the iPhone to call a friend. Iris had something to say to all of us.